Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Agnostic Argument - 3 (What Would Spock Do?)

The title of this post is a takeoff on the question devout Christians ask themselves when faced with a moral dilemma - What would Jesus do?

A friend recently sent me a link to an article in Psychology Today by Nigel Barber that provocatively avers that Atheism will replace Religion. I however found the analysis a little superficial.

I found Andrew Park's thoughtful rejoinder much more convincing and meaningful. He takes the more realistic view that the continued existence of religious belief, for whatever reason, is something that atheists need to acknowledge - and acknowledge without disparaging the intelligence or relevance of believers. We (and our children) have to share this world with believers for a long time, and a harmonious relationship is perhaps more important than winning the argument. I may be putting words in his mouth here, but that's what I took away from his piece.

Todd Kashdan's critique was also quite good. He reframes the debate in psychological terms, and ends by focusing on superstition rather than religion as a whole. I agree that attacking superstitious beliefs is more likely to succeed than attacking people's faith in general.

Reading some of the comments on these articles, I develop the distinct impression that people expect atheism to provide a fully-fledged philosophy of how to live life, so as to make it easy for a theist to simply discard one set of values and adopt another without breaking stride. But that expectation does atheism an injustice.

The term 'atheism' is emotionally loaded, and so instead of framing the debate as 'atheism versus belief in God', I would prefer to think of it as 'rationalism versus superstition'. By training people to question specific instances of blind belief, and by demonstrating scientific explanations for each of them, we can lead from the specific to the general and inculcate scientific thinking as a basis for making decisions about our lives.

After all, atheism is nothing but a lack of belief in God because of lack of evidence for the existence of God. It does not claim to be a school of philosophy.

What does all this have to do with Mr Spock of Star Trek? I'm reminded of what Spock said to Lt Valeris (perhaps the only Vulcan whose name doesn't begin with an 'S' or end with a 'k') in The Undiscovered Country: "Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end."

How true. Atheism is the beginning of a rationalist philosophy, not the end.
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